10.7 Knowledge Organization: Schemata and Scripts

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch10 Mental Organisation of Knowledge

How does your mind organize the world? When you see a new animal, can you easily tell if it’s a bird, mammal or fish? Categories and mental structures, such as types of animals, are called schemata. This lesson discusses different types of schemata and why they are important.


Your best friend tells you to try out a new restaurant in town. You go to the restaurant, excited for a new experience. When you get there, they hand you a piece of pie, make you eat it while you’re standing up and ask if you want to sit down while they take your drink order. What’s going on? This order of events should surprise you as it’s not what typically happens when you go to a restaurant. We have certain expectations about how the world works and how certain events should occur. That’s the topic of this lesson: how we organize our knowledge about the world.


When you organize the world, you’re using what psychologists call schemata. The word ‘schemata’ is just the plural for the singular word ‘schema.’ So what are schemata? Schemata are mental frameworks or concepts we use to organize and understand the world. We use schemata every day. If you see an animal, you can quickly decide if it’s a bird, mammal, reptile or fish. These basic animal concepts are schemata. When you go into a restaurant, you have a certain order of events that you expect to happen. That’s because you have a schema for the concept of restaurant. We have schemata for every important category or structure that exists in our world.

The basic concepts that allow you to quickly identify different types of animals are schemata

Within schemata, there can be levels of organization or information. Lower levels within a schema are called subschemata. Let’s think about an example. You probably have a schema for the category of tools. In that large category, or schema, you could narrow it down to office tools, like a stapler or computer; kitchen tools, like an oven or spatula; and mechanic tools, like a hammer or screwdriver. Within the schema for mechanic tools, you could think about the schema screwdriver and narrow that down even more to regular versus Phillip’s head. There are multiple levels of information, or categories, so there are lots and lots of subschemata. It’s kind of like having folders on your computer. Inside each folder, there might be additional levels of folders with each level holding more and more specific kinds of information.

Sometimes, people use the word ‘subschemata’ to refer to concepts that describe the larger concept. For example, if your schema were dog, subschemata might be things like wags tail when happy, barks at strangers or likes to eat bones. Either way, the term ‘subschemata’ refers to levels or ideas within a larger schema.

Types of Schemata

Besides levels of schemata, there are also different types. The first type is called a well-formed, specific schema. A well-formed, specific schema is just what it sounds like; it’s a concept or category for which a person has a lot of clear, accurate, useful information. You probably have a well-formed, specific schema for your own family. You know the different people in your family, how they act, any problems between members, holiday traditions and so on.

We have specific schemata for our families and their holiday traditions

In contrast, a poorly formed, vague schema is a concept or category for which a person has unclear and uncertain information. You might have a poorly formed, vague schema for the holiday traditions of people who live in New Zealand or of the particular family problems that might exist in your librarian’s family. The more experience and information you get about any particular concept, the better formed and more specific your schema about that concept will be.

Finally, a particular type of well-formed, specific schema is called a script. A script is a very specific schema for a particular order of expected events in a particular context. Most people, at least in the United States, have a script for what happens when you go to a fast food restaurant. You walk in. You stand in line at one of the registers. You stare at the big menu above the registers that has pictures of the food. You get to the register, order your food and pay. You get your food on a tray, walk over to the side and fill your drink cup and ketchup containers. You walk around the molded, plastic chairs until you find a place to eat. Our scripts tell us what to expect in this particular context, just like a script in a play tells the actors exactly what to say and do.

Importance of Schemata

Now that you understand what schemata are, why are they important? Schemata can be helpful in a couple of different ways or they can cause us problems. Let’s, first, talk about why they are helpful.

Many times, having a schema or script can help us organize or predict the world. If you walk into a brand new fast food restaurant, you know, basically, what to expect even though you’ve never been there before. If you go to a friend’s wedding, again, you know basically the order of events and how you are expected to dress and act. You probably wouldn’t go to a wedding without a gift and dressed in very informal clothes because your schema helps to you fit in. When you watch the news on TV and you hear about what’s happening in another country, you’ll be able to understand why the information is important if you have a schema about that country and its culture and history. These are all examples of how schemata can help any individual person successfully navigate the world.

Schemata can be helpful in knowing how to dress and act at a wedding

 Schemata are also helpful in getting to know and understand other people. The way we organize our world tells other people about how we think. For example, imagine that we’re playing word association. I’m going to say a word out loud, and you say the first word that occurs to you. Ready? Boxer. When I say the word ‘boxer,’ what word popped into your head? Did you think, dog? Or maybe you thought, fighter. Or you might even have said underwear! Which word comes to mind gives us information about you and how you organize the world.

Finally, schemata can sometimes hurt us because we can make assumptions about the world that turn out to be incorrect. You might go to a friend’s wedding with certain expectations, but if your friend is from a different culture, you could end up making an embarrassing mistake in front of all the other people there. Or let’s say your boss invites you to a weekend barbeque. You show up wearing flip-flops and sunglasses, expecting it to be a casual event, but it turns out to be at your boss’s mansion, and it’s a fancy garden party where everyone is dressed up. Your schema for barbeque caused you trouble! Our stereotypes and assumptions about the world can be harmful in this type of way because we can make mistakes we regret later, due to our schemata.

Lesson Summary

In summary:

  • Schemata are mental frameworks or concepts we use to organize and understand the world. When we have multiple layers of information, the lower levels are called subschemata.
  • Well-formed, specific schemata are categories or frameworks for which we have detailed, useful information, whereas poorly formed, vague schemata are categories or frameworks for which we do not.
  • Scripts are one type of well-formed, specific schema that tell us the exact order of events to expect in a certain context.
  • While most of the time schemata help us predict and process the world, sometimes our assumptions or stereotypes lead us to make mistakes. It’s important to have schemata but also to be willing to change them when needed.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define schemata
  • Identify and describe the different types of schemata
  • Explain how schemata can both help and hurt us


10.8 Declarative & Procedural Knowledge: Differences & Uses
10.6 Association Analogies: Definition & Types